By Mark Zimmermann Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Taking steps to confront climate change and personally and professionally working for environmental justice "is at the very foundation of what our faith calls us to do," Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory said at an April 21 opening ceremony of a conference on "Climate Change and the Future of Work."
"We live in a changing climate, and we have a moral obligation to respond thoughtfully and respectfully as Christ himself would," said Cardinal Gregory at The Catholic University of America event.
This means caring for one another and working together "to care for our common home with dedicated vigilance," he stressed.
The conference -- inspired by Pope Francis' landmark 2015 encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home" -- coincided with Earth Day, April 22. It brought college students together for panel discussions with leaders from government, industries, higher education and the nonprofit sector.
It also featured an exposition fair and breakout sessions on environmental topics and professional opportunities.
"Part of our collective response is just what this conference is about: analyzing the many ways that we can professionally and personally work in collaboration to bring about environmental justice in every community," the cardinal said.
He said the conference was timely, happening at a challenging moment as the global coronavirus pandemic is in its third year, and as the world is rallying to support and pray for the suffering people of war-torn Ukraine.
He also said Catholic social teaching and pro-life beliefs should spur people to respond to environmental crises such as insufficient and polluted water and poor air quality.
The cardinal noted that nearly every industry has new and restructured professional roles for environmental sustainability commitments, and Catholic University and other institutions of higher education are providing new environmental areas of study.
"In the ever-expanding landscape of environmental work possibilities, women and men wanting to make a tangible difference in green industries can and should responsibly act to address environmental and other inequities in our society in a meaningful way -- especially in marginalized communities," he said.
The cardinal emphasized how environmental negligence and exploitation often impacts "the locations where the poor, the marginalized and people of color live."
Pope Francis grounded his environmental justice encyclical "Laudato Si'" in Scripture and Catholic teaching, but addressed it to all people on earth, the cardinal said, adding that as neighbors, people are called to care for one another and also to care for the planet they share.
He said the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington this past fall launched a Laudato Si' Action Plan containing "small and big ways for us to exercise stewardship over God's creation," just as the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which he previously led, had done with one of the first diocesan action plans that was inspired by the encyclical and also drew on the input of local experts.
"When it comes to environmental justice, we each have a critical, ongoing role to care for creation to ensure the Earth is protected for future generations," he said.
Cardinal Gregory encouraged students as they consider the future of work and how they might fit in, to reflect on several key personal calls to action raised in "Laudato Si'," such as guaranteeing that all people have access to clean water and reaching out to vulnerable groups, like Indigenous communities, migrant children and human trafficking victims.
The cardinal said the issue of ecological economics can be addressed when businesses and organizations support fair trade initiatives "so that workers are paid just wages and so consumer goods are made as environmentally friendly as possible."
Another key consideration is adapting a simple lifestyle in our busy world, noting that in the workplace that might mean looking at professional options to limit waste.
The cardinal said Pope Francis wants Catholic universities, parishes and schools to re-think and redesign educational programs "in the spirit of integral ecology. Our hope is that this will promote an ecological vocation in our young people, as well as teachers and leaders in education."
In 2020, Catholic University adopted a five-year plan for creating a culture of sustainability, emphasizing Catholic social teaching on the environment, teaching students environmental best practices in careers such as architecture and engineering, and expanding clean energy on the campus.
The university now offers more than 150 courses related to sustainability across multiple programs.
Catholic University has 2,700 solar panels and announced in March that it will be building the Washington metro area's largest urban solar array on the university's campus, providing locally generated, renewable energy.
Holly Thompson, a Catholic University senior majoring in environmental studies, said she appreciated the cardinal's emphasis on the importance of environmental education.
"I have been working to promote the environment as a pro-life issue to CUA's campus and its relation to environmental justice issues," she said in an email to the Catholic Standard, archdiocesan newspaper. "So it was important to me that the cardinal mentioned that care for creation is a pro-life issue."
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, archdiocesan newspaper of Washington.